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Inside the show: The Great Spectacle

Published 5 July 2018

From the work of “friendly rivals” Reynolds and Gainsborough to the rebellious Pre-Raphaelites, our exhibition The Great Spectacle brings together some of the highlights of 250 years of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. Take a look inside in these videos.

  • Georgian Spectacle: Reynolds and Gainsborough

    Friendly rivals Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough each had their own strategies to attract attention in the densely-packed Summer Exhibitions of the Academy’s early years.

    Curator Mark Hallett explains how a direct gaze, a hint of scandal and some clever lighting effects helped draw the viewers in.

  • David Wilkie and the Summer Show’s first blockbuster

    Genre paintings, or scenes from everyday life, were popular subjects in the Summer Exhibitions of the early nineteenth century. In 1822, huge crowds flocked to see Scottish painter David Wilkie’s depiction of Londoners hearing the news of Britain’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo.

    What was it about this painting that so gripped the public imagination?

  • John Everett Millais and the arrival of the Pre-Raphaelites

    In the mid-19th century, a group of rebellious young artists chose the Summer Exhibition to announce their arrival onto the art scene.

    John Everett Millais would eventually be elected President of the Royal Academy and become a respected pillar of the establishment, but in his youth he was keen to break free of the constraints of academic history painting as prescribed by Sir Joshua Reynolds in his “Discourses”.

  • Breaking into the boys' club: Dame Laura Knight

    Although the Academy had two female founder members in 1768, it took over a century before another woman – Laura Knight – was elected a full Academician. Curator Sarah Turner discusses Knight’s striking painting Lamorna Birch and his Daughters.

  • RB Kitaj: the artist's revenge

    It wasn’t just the Pre-Raphaelites who used the Summer Exhibition to go head-to-head with their critics. In 1997, the artist RB Kitaj took aim at the reviewers who had slated his Tate exhibition several years earlier. For Kitaj, this critical savaging was inextricably linked with a devastating personal tragedy.

    • Visit The Great Spectacle

      Until 19 August 2018

      Journey through the story of 250 years of the Summer Exhibition, the world’s longest running annual display of contemporary art.

      The Great Spectacle is an innovative, illuminating and visually stunning celebration of the Academy’s first 250 years and demonstrates the impact of the Summer Exhibition on art in Britain and internationally.

      William Powell Frith, A Private View at the Academy, 1881
    • , Photographs of procedures for the Summer Exhibition, 1930

      250 years of the Summer Exhibition online

      The Chronicle

      In celebration of the Royal Academy’s 250th birthday and coinciding with The Great Spectacle exhibition, a new open access publication by the Paul Mellon Centre looks back at 250 years of the Summer Exhibition. Explore 250 years of stories, artworks and data, alongside lively year-by-year essays and a complete set of digitised and searchable Summer Exhibition catalogues.


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